Towards better business relations

“The question is how to improve relations with our clients,” began Superboss in a resigned tone.
 
The problem with our organization is that no one likes the ‘clients’ – or agents as we call them. At best they are a necessary evil, at worst they are an unnecessary menace. We have never been able to decide what would happen to our zonal office if we did not have any ‘clients’. One school of thought believes that nobody would notice the difference at the HQ, while the other feels that the existence of the agents is the last, and a pretty tenuous, reason for being tolerated. Anyway, we have managed to suppress our latent hostility towards them a great extent so far.
 
Mr A, my immediate boss, has the charge of ‘handling’ with the agents. Earlier this was the responsibility of the technical guys because we are a company dealing with customized software for small businesses. By and by, the relations between the company engineers and the agents collapsed totally – the two parties speak totally different languages.
 
Mr A was appointed initially as an interpreter between these warring factions, but later, as a punishment for some blunder, was given the sole charge of keeping the agents happy. So far he has managed to stay afloat – complaints by the agents have not yet reached the HQ.
 
Superboss has taken a number of meetings to resolve the trouble in this department. “What are the key trouble areas?” he asked yet again. The answer to this question has been provided to him, orally and in writing, in form of a comprehensive report and also as a one page summary and in form of a powerpoint presentation in one of the earlier meetings.
 
“The problem is that the products that we are offering do not suit the clients of the agents…” began Mr A, but he was promptly interrupted by Superboss.
 
“What do you mean does not suit – the software is tailor made for the needs of small businesses – it is doing so well across the world, there is no reason why it would suddenly stop being useful here. We are not communicating its features properly,” said Superboss, not willing to buy this excuse.
 
“Our technical team is not able to customize the software for the needs of companies here, at least that is what the agents have been saying,” continued Mr A doggedly.
 
“I have talked to the technical manager. He tells me that the software has certain limitations regarding its ability to customize, and this limit has been deliberately put to ensure the sturdiness and integrity of the system. What the companies need is a little bit of reorientation and training to adapt to a new platform. The agents must understand this. Such reorientation  is done all over the world, I don’t know why everything becomes a problem here,” said Superboss, his temper rising visibly.
 
The internal contradiction of ‘customized’ software refusing to be customized does not strike as curious to anyone in our company. I have a suspicion that the techies are taking us for a ride, but the management does not have the expertise to call their bluff. The problem it therefore seemed was of the unnatural obduracy of the part of the agents to understand the situation.
 
Mr A had a sudden flash. “We can organize a reorientation course for the agents,” he suggested.
 
This idea struck a chord, and Superboss smiled, “You do that. Have an orientation course in a good place. I think we should be able to spare some money – book a five star hotel. Some of us can also join in – it will be a refresher for us also. There are some aspects of our software I am also not clear about…” continued Superboss happily.
 
Superboss was being unnecessarily humble – most of our top bosses do not know anything about any of our numerous ‘products’. Managers are trained to succeed in life blindfolded, and it would be a virtual admission of weakness of the ‘art of management’ if they were to understand the technical details. The tech guys also prefer this arrangement. I think the techies secretly fantasize becoming a Steve Jobs of a Bill Gates one day. They closely guard the technical details from the management, probably with the hope of escaping one night to  the Silicon Valley and cashing their knowledge with a startup or something.
 
The plan for a reorientation course for the agents materialized within a few days. A five star hotel was booked, arrangements were made for sumptuous meals and frequent snack breaks. Elegant kits were ordered for distribution and the CEO was invited for inaugurating the course.
 
The course was dubbed as the first of its kind ‘in the industry’ and the PR guys started chasing the media for a write-up on it on ‘one of the weekends’. A rag-tag tabloid did do a full page feature on the ‘Rising trend of Orientation Courses in Business’ but they got totally mixed up with their facts and even got the name of Superboss wrong. They even attributed a wrong quote to him. It was months before Superboss could forget this faux pas and forgive the PR manager.
 
There were two things that could not be decided till the very last day – the course content and the speakers (or trainers) for the course. The proposal to call the top engineers from the US was shot down as too expensive and not relevant to the needs of the local situation. The techies tried to avoid facing the hostile and unintelligible agents.
 
For a while the opinion tilted towards inviting ‘industry experts’ and ‘opinion makers’ to speak. The idea was to make the course high profile and classy. It was however pointed out by a disgruntled element that the very idea of familiarizing the agents with the specifications of our software would not be served by calling ‘outside’ experts.
 
Finally it was decided, though reluctantly, that after the speeches of the CEO and Superboss, and a round of refreshments, one selected agent would be asked to speak on his experience with our company. It was however to be ensured by Mr A that this gentleman should be carefully selected and tutored. Next, after lunch, would be a session by the technical manager who would, along with his team of engineers, highlight the strengths of our products. The last session, after tea, would be open for Q&A.
 
The entire program, it seemed, was carefully designed to stymie any effective communication between the sullen agents and the reticent engineers.
 
In the end CEO backed out – he went to Dubai for a Seminar on Extending Business Relations. Superboss presided over the inaugural session, and lest the august gathering missed the presence of the CEO, took double the slated time to complete his ‘welcome’ speech.
 
The agent selected by Mr A to speak was an 85 year old gentleman with a soft voice and failing memory. He was the least belligerent among the agents, felt Mr A, and most amenable to tutoring. Mr Jack Roberts had not sold a single unit of our software in the last two years, but has attended all our get-togethers and was deemed to be a ‘sober’ voice.
 
Jack began by thanking all the members of our office that he personally knew, for calling him to chair the session. Next he described the great personal qualities of Superboss. This was the tutored part, and he referred to his notes a number of times to refresh his memory. He described his relations with the company in brief, and then gave a lengthy description of his career, his life and times and moved on to give a brief account of the achievements of his grandson, who was studying in the US. It was only when the impatient hotel staff rudely announced lunch that he stopped abruptly, and the session ended.
 
Post lunch, the presentation by the techies acted like soothing music on the sumptuous food and resulted in most of the agents nodding off to a well-earned siesta. They were however rudely woken by the belligerent howl of Ben, one of our more discontented agents.
 
Benjamin Wright or Ben does push our products to a considerable extent, but his aggressive attitude and lack of manners irritates Superboss no end. During the last few months Ben has been trying his best to break the patience of Mr A, though without much success so far.
 
“What is the use of reading the product brochure? What we want is the inside dope – how to customize the software, how to satisfy the actual buyers regarding the questions that they raise?”
 
It was not clear who this question was addressed to. The technical manager looked expectantly at Superboss and Superboss looked hopefully towards Mr A for enlightenment. Mr X, sitting just behind Superboss, murmured, “Who invited this bugger?” in a voice calculated to reach Ben. Mr A looked calm and unconcerned.
 
Finally Superboss had to intervene. He began with his pet theory of the ‘sturdy software and the need for reorientation for users’ mindsets’, but Ben would have none of it.
 
“Consider some of the minor problems first,” began Ben, “The accountancy laws here are different. The currency and the time zones are different. The product line of most the businesses and nomenclature here are different. The tax laws are different. Even the way that we write a date is different here. I am told that the software has the ability to absorb such changes, but no one tells how. Then to some more serious issues..”
 
This time Superboss cut in, “Ben you are putting in too many things together. This is what confuses the issues more than anything else. I have told you before that if you could just prepare a list of the issues that you feel need to be addressed and give them to me…”
 
“I gave the list to you last year, and again twice this year. I also posted it on the facebook page that you started…”
 
“See that is the problem,” Superboss raised his voice to match Ben’s, “You are going all over the place but are not willing to listen….”
 
“Listen to what?”
 
“This cannot go on like this. I think we would like to hear Mr A on the issues raised,” said Mr A with a flourish. He knew he was playing his best card at the most crucial moment. He does have faith in Mr A’s abilities.
 
“”Mummble…mumble,” began Mr A accompanied with a winning smile and a soft voice. “While Ben does raise some relevant questions, the answer lies in looking beyond the immediate future,” said Mr A and stopped. What had seemed to be a ‘prelude’ to many of us, was in fact the entire and complete answer to the questions raised.
 
Ben and Superboss seemed stunned into silence, but some of the ‘simple’ souls requested Mr A to elaborate. Mr A was not in the mood to oblige. He looked shy and humble in an equal measure, and his manners indicated that he would rather not underestimate the intelligence of those present by explaining what was obvious.
 
Superboss took over once again. “I think ‘A’ is right to an extent, but we have also noted the concern of Ben, and we would look into the matter. I think the gentleman at the back also wished to raise some point.”
 
Ben was not to be shaken off too easily, and began his familiar vitriolic attack. Superboss looked at Mr A, and Mr A looked at the banquet manager. In a loud voice the manager announced that tea was served. That brought the session to a close, and once again, on a happy note. The tension had become too much for some of the older members to bear, and with a collective sigh of relief, all moved towards the atrium for some refreshing Assam tea.
 
After an extended tea break, Superboss announced that since the Q&A session had already been included in the previous part of the program we would move directly to the presentation of ‘best agent awards’ and concluding speeches. No one disputed the motion and the last session sailed past smoothly and without a hitch.
 
“See how even a little effort can make such a big difference,” announced Superboss in the Monday meeting the following week. “CEO was enquiring about our reorientation course for agents and I told him quite frankly that we had slipped slightly but with this initiative we have clarified the doubts completely and the agents are feeling much more empowered and close to the company now.”
 
The bonhomie created by the reorientation course between the management and the agents must have been platonic – for I could not find much evidence of it in my daily interactions with them. But at least the meetings on the subject of disgruntled agents stopped for a while, and that can definitely be counted as one tangible and positive outcome of the exercise.
 
***
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About Abhishek

I will let the blog speak for itself...or, at times, for me. View all posts by Abhishek

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